Agriculture Research Board Faces Full Slate of Issues
Agriculture officials will soon name a board of directors for the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research that Congress created in this year’s farm bill and launch a program they hope will draw more money into the kind of basic scientific study that made the United States an agriculture powerhouse.
The bill authorized $200 million in mandatory spending to attract matching amounts from the private sector to finance research. It is modeled after foundations established to help the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Congress laid out seven areas of potential research, including plant and animal health, food safety, nutrition, and health and renewable energy.
Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates sees potential in the nonprofit foundation’s work. In a March visit to Capitol Hill, Gates, co-chairman of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, praised the concept and said he looked forward to working with its grantees. In particular, he said he hopes the research includes the development of seed varieties that would be useful to subsistence farmers in Africa.
The first test for the foundation will be the composition of its board. Some interest groups say those chosen should provide clues to where the foundation will put its money and time. Eight directors will come from nominees recommended by the National Academy of Sciences and seven will be chosen from more than 200 industry nominees.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, along with the department’s three top research officials and a representative from the National Science Foundation will select the board members and somehow balance the views of different sectors in U.S. agriculture. The officials are expected to make the board picks in the next month or two.
Juli Obudzinski, senior policy specialist for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition said the department has made it clear that it wants a foundation board of directors that represents “the diversity of agriculture. They didn’t want it to be just big agriculture or biotech.”
Her coalition, which focuses on conservation policy and issues that affect small and beginning farmers, thinks the board should go beyond traditional research priorities such as improving crop yields.
“We want research defined in very broad terms,” Obudzinski said, “not just emerging pests or even climate change, but research on the economy of agriculture and everything from nutrition to what is happening with the shrinking [number] of family farms.”
On the other hand, David Edwards, director of animal biotechnology for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, said his industry wants the focus of grants to be science and results.
Edwards said people in his industry will be looking at the board composition for “folks who will help push the cutting-edge science. We look for basic researchers whose discoveries will really fuel and fill the pipeline with new technology to help feed people.”
Supporters of the foundation concept said it was necessary because Congress has essentially flat-lined federal spending for basic agricultural research.
The American Society of Agronomy, the Crop Science Society of America and the Soil Science Society of America were among groups that pushed the idea in Congress, said Karl Anderson, government affairs director for the three organizations.
“We’re cognizant that in this current climate of concern about the deficit and debt, there isn’t going to be a whole bunch of new money flowing in,” Anderson said. “We were looking for outside-the-box ways to bring additional research to bear on the big challenges that face agriculture.”
A Panoply of Issues
There’s plenty to keep researchers busy, with areas such as water security and climate change that will affect farming practices.
Anderson’s members think the foundation board members should be able to look at big picture issues and know “they are not there to protect some small or individual interest.”
Basic research, especially study done in the public domain, functions as a building block for applied science research. But basic research is not sexy and often takes years to finish, making it less attractive to lawmakers who want quick and tangible results. Public spending at state and federal levels for basic research and development peaked in 1994 when inflation is factored in, according to a 2011 report by the Economic Research Service, the analytical arm of the Agriculture Department.
On the flip side, private agri-companies continue to spend strongly on science geared to creating profitable products. Unlike the results of publicly financed research, companies generally do not share details because they are proprietary.
How much of the foundation-sponsored research results will be in the public realm is something the board will determine. The law that created the foundation says the entity is to share information with the agricultural research community, although it does not require that all research findings be shared.
Two years ago, a presidential council on science and technology said the United States needed to invest an additional $700 million per year in the Agriculture Department and National Science Foundation research efforts. The council recommended that federally sponsored research should concentrate more on basic research to help farmers control new pests, pathogens and invasive plants, increase the efficient use of water and adapt food production to changing climate conditions.
Council members acknowledged that it would be difficult to persuade congressional appropriators to substantially increase spending for research. For fiscal 2015, House and Senate appropriators have cited budget constraints but still propose increases for the Agricultural Research Services, the prime agency for basic research. The House bill, HR 4800, calls for $1.3 billion, a 14 percent increase above the 2014 enacted level. The Senate measure, S 2389, would provide $1.14 billion, a less than 2 percent increase.
The next step after the board starts work will be to sort out grants and try to attract money from other sources. Edwards of the biotechnology industry said that if the foundation is successful, the next fight might be to make sure Congress does not see that success as a reason to reduce the federal share.
“Agriculture research is so underfunded that we need all funds,” he said. The foundation “cannot be a replacement for those funds. It needs to be in addition to those funds.”